Wednesday, March 14, 2012

[PL 431] The Mystery of Psychological Egoism

In "Egoism and Moral Skepticism," James Rachels discusses psychological egoism, which is the view that each person has one ultimate aim: her own welfare. Proponents of psychological egoism claim that apparent acts of altruism are merely apparent, since those who act in apparently altruistic ways derive pleasure from doing so. That is to say, acting in apparently altruistic ways makes people feel good, which means that they are not really altruists, but rather egoists, since they act in such ways in order to feel good about themselves, rather than truly help someone in need.

This seems very odd, however. A person who is truly an egoist is a person who has no concern whatsoever for the welfare of others. In that case, how can an egoist derive any pleasure from acting in apparently altruistic ways?

In other words, proponents of psychological egoism seem to be making the following causal claim. They claim that an apparently altruistic act performed by Egoist causes Recipient to feel good, which in turn causes the Egoist to feel good about herself.

The second arrow in this causal chain, however, seems very mysterious. If a person is truly an egoist, then it is not clear how that person can be caused to feel good by making other people feel good, since, by hypothesis, an egoist is a person who doesn't care about the welfare of others. Can proponents of psychological egoism make this claim less mysterious?

1 comment:

  1. Great q! ... though in your re-creation of the challenge, I would question the insertion of the intermediate causal link. It seems to me that it is possible for someone to engage in helping behavior just to make him/her-self feel good, and thus, though feeling good may be a necessary condition for an act to count as altruistic, it is not sufficient. After all, people engage in other acts (for example, sex, or malice) for the sake of pleasure, so why not helping behavior? To illustrate, suppose that Smith is generally a benevolent person. He derives great pleasure from helping others. But he discovers that on trips to certain countries that happen to hate foreigners, he is deprived of this ‘reward’ (good feelings). Waiters and cab drivers generally do not thank him when he tips them. People are rude when he tries to strike up a friendly conversation. He is not thanked when he gives up his seat on a train or bus. Even homeless people do not thank him or smile when he gives them his pocket change. The natives accept his help, but view it more as an obligation than a display of generosity. As a result, Smith begins to feel like a sucker. He ceases to feel good about helping others on these trips, and this causes him to cease his helping behavior on these trips. But back home he returns to his usual pattern of helping others. It would seem wrongheaded to classify Smith as an altruist with regard to his helping behavior back home, as Rachels, Feinberg, and others might, for the example suggests, or at least does not rule out the possibility, that he engages in it merely for the good feelings that it brings him. Why should we think otherwise? Hope this makes sense. -- Chryssa


This is an academic blog about critical thinking, logic, and philosophy. So please refrain from making insulting, disparaging, and otherwise inappropriate comments. Also, if I publish your comment, that does not mean I agree with it. Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog.